Charles Lathrop Pack Essay Competition

In 1923, Charles Lathrop Pack had the foresight to establish an essay competition so that students in the College of Forest Resources would “express themselves to the public and write about forestry in a way that affects or interests the public.” His original mandate continues today at SEFS—as does the unwavering value of good written communication—and we are pleased to announce the 2014 edition of the Charles Lathrop Pack Essay Competition!

Charles Lathrop Pack

Charles Lathrop Pack

The prize for top essays is $500, and this year’s prompt addresses biofuels:

There are great hopes of converting woody biomass into liquid transportation fuels. What are the likely economic, social and ecological ramifications of pursuing a wood-to-liquid fuel strategy in the Pacific Northwest?

Entries are due by Tuesday, April 1, 2014. If you have any questions about the competition, or if you’d like to see if your essay idea sounds promising and appropriate, email Professor Greg Ettl. Otherwise, review the rest of the guidelines below, and get busy thinking and typing!

Essay Criteria
In responding to the prompt, you must justify your answer from a political, ecological and economic point of view. You are expected to provide a technical perspective, addressing a diverse and educated audience that needs further knowledge of natural resource issues. Writers are expected to clearly state the problem or issue to be addressed at the beginning of the essay, and should emphasize a strong public communications element. Course papers substantially restructured to meet these guidelines are acceptable; however, no group entries are permitted. References and quotes are acceptable only when sources are clearly indicated; direct quotes should be used sparingly.

Submitting
Entries should be typed, double-spaced (one side of paper only), and may not exceed 2,000 words. Include a cover page with student name and title of the essay, then print your submission and deliver to Student and Academic Services in AND 116/130 no later than April 1, 2014.

Eligibility
The competition is open to juniors, seniors and graduate students enrolled in SEFS during Spring Quarter 2014 who have not yet received a graduate-level degree from any institution. Undergraduate and graduate essays will be judged in separate categories.

Judging
A Judging Committee will be selected to assess originality, organization, mastery of subject, objectivity, clarity, forcefulness of writing, literary merit and conciseness. The Committee will reserve the right to withhold the prize if no entry meets acceptable standards. The Committee may also award more than one prize for outstanding entries if funds permit. Winning papers will be posted on the Center for Sustainable Forestry at Pack Forest website, and might also be featured on the SEFS blog, “Offshoots,” and in the School’s e-newsletter, The Straight Grain.

Charles Lathrop Pack © SEFS.

Hardwood Biofuels Webinar Series

Next Wednesday, December 11, from 10-11 a.m. PST, Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB) is hosting the second webinar in an ongoing series about aspects of the biofuels industry and current research. The webinar, “Assessing the economic and environmental impacts of poplar-based biofuel production,” will feature three presenters from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences: Professor Rick Gustafson along with graduate students Erik Budsberg and Jordan Crawford.

The webinar is free, and online registration is now open!

Advanced Hardwood Biofuels NorthwestWho Should Attend

Extension educators, potential landowners/growers, agriculture and natural resource professionals, poplar and bioenergy researchers, environmental professionals, government officials and other biomass producers.

What’s Covered? 

•           Economic assessment of the bioconversion process based on ASPEN model outputs
•           Profitability analysis, including options to produce hydrogen
•           Life-cycle inventory of resources and energy inputs and emissions
•           Life-cycle analysis in consideration of global warming and fossil fuel and water use

Summary
A technical feasibility and economic performance analysis examines the production of biofuels using the ZeaChem conversion technology with options for producing the hydrogen that is required in the process. Using outputs from an ASPEN simulation model of the bioconversion process for the economic assessment, we will present operating and capital cost results as well as an evaluation of economies of scale. Profitability is presented in terms of the cash cost to produce the fuel and the selling price required to generate a reasonable return on investment.

Life-cycle assessments (LCA) examine all the resource demands and outputs to the environment associated with the production and use of a product. Starting from establishment of the bioenergy farm to combustion of the fuel product, we inventory the resources and energy acquired from the environment and all emissions that go back into the environment. The life-cycle inventories are then translated into environmental impacts using standard LCA protocols. In this LCA we examine life-cycle global warming potential, fossil fuel usage and water usage. The life-cycle impacts of hydrogen production options are examined in detail to complement the techno/economic analysis research in this area.

How to Access the Webinar
After you’ve registered, you should start connecting 10 minutes prior to the start time. You’ll need a computer with internet access and speakers. At the meeting time, you can enter the meeting online or paste  this link, http://breeze.wsu.edu/growinggreen/, into your internet browser. The link will open to a login page. “Enter as guest” with your name and business or institution, and click “Enter Room.” (If you have any difficulty registering online, contact Nora Haider at nora.haider@wsu.edu.)

Sponsored by the  University of Washington and Washington State University, this webinar is part of the Hardwood Biofuels Webinar Series. You can check out archived presentations, and the next installment is scheduled for February 5, 2014, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. PST (details to come).

About AHB
Led by the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, AHB is a consortium of university and industry partners in the Pacific Northwest working to support a sustainable hardwood biofuels industry for growing and converting hardwoods, such as hybrid poplars, into liquid biofuels. If you’d like to join the AHB mailing list and receive the latest news and event information, sign up now!

SEFS Seminar Series: Week 2 Preview

Fernando Resende

Professor Fernando Resende

After a great presentation and terrific turnout for Mary Ruckelshaus of the Natural Capital Project in Week 1 of the SEFS Seminar Series, we’re excited to build on that energy this Tuesday with Professor Fernando Resende!

In his talk tomorrow (Oct. 8), “Thermochemical Conversion of Lignocellulosic Biomass into Fuels and Chemicals,” Resende will explain how we can make fuels and high-value products from wood, grass and agricultural residues—and how his work specifically uses high-temperature engineering processes.

The seminars are held on Tuesdays from 3:30-4:20 p.m. in Anderson 223, and all students, staff and faculty are encouraged to attend. Make sure to mark your calendars for the rest of the seminars this fall!

(A special thank you, as well, to the Dead Elk Society for their help organizing the reception after the seminar. The next reception is scheduled after Professor Stanley Asah’s talk on November 5.)

Photo © Fernando Resende.

Understanding the Carbon Balance of Biofuel Production

In 2011, the USDA awarded $40 million to the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB) consortium to develop a system to convert poplar trees into liquid biofuels. Led by the University of Washington and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), the AHB team is developing various strategies to create a renewable, direct replacement for existing fossil fuels that can be used in conventional cars, trucks and jet engines. The long-term vision is to produce 400 million gallons of biofuel per year from 400,000 acres of hybrid, sustainably-grown poplars.

Poplar Plantation

Poplar plantation in Oregon.

Four poplar demonstration plantations in the Pacific Northwest are being established as part of the AHB project to optimize production of biomass feedstock. At these poplar plantations in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, AHB researchers are thoroughly assessing the plantation environmental impacts on a number of factors, such as the carbon cycle, soil, wildlife and water usage.

Part of this research includes life cycle assessment (LCA) to determine total carbon emissions associated with production and use of biofuels. One question to be resolved by the LCA is the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of biofuels, especially compared to petroleum-based fuels.

“The life cycle greenhouse gas emissions depend on many factors,” says SEFS Professor Rick Gustafson, who is leading the AHB research. He says preliminary results show that poplar-derived biofuels unquestionably lead to substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline, but the precise magnitude of the reduction has yet to be worked out. These reduced emissions result from carbon sequestration of growing poplar feedstock balancing emissions from conversion of biomass into fuel and from use of the fuel product.

As a result, producing ethanol from plantation-grown poplar trees can be nearly carbon neutral. Research by Erik Budsberg, a SEFS Ph.D. student involved in the AHB program, shows that carbon emissions from fermenting the lignocellulosic sugars directly into ethanol, and burning the residual biomass to create electricity, is balanced out by the carbon sequestered by the poplar trees and by the displacement of fossil fuel-based electricity. The downside to this process, however, is that the total product yield—80 gallons of biofuel per ton of biomass used— is somewhat low, resulting in inferior process economics and greater feedstock demands. In addition, the ethanol fuel product is not compatible with our current transportation infrastructure, making its use somewhat limited.

Erik Budsberg

Erik Budsberg standing in front of year-old poplar trees at a GreenWood Resources poplar plantation in Boardman, Ore.

By using a different process, ethanol can be produced with a yield of 130 gallons per ton of biomass used. This process uses a different fermentation pathway but requires the addition of hydrogen to produce the fuel. While the yield is high—resulting in superior process economics and low biomass demand—this method has greater life cycle carbon emissions since it requires pumping natural gas, a fossil fuel, into the system. Even so, the process still results in a 60-percent reduction of greenhouse gases compared to gasoline.

A challenge of using bioethanol is that current infrastructure in the United States—most vehicles, and the fuel distribution network—is not built to handle fuels with high concentrations of ethanol, and that’s not likely to change any time soon, says Gustafson. To produce biofuels that are fully compatible with existing infrastructure, the ABH research program is developing processes that convert the poplar trees all the way to hydrocarbons, which are the molecules found in gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

“By producing hydrocarbons, we end up with greater carbon emissions when compared to producing ethanol,” says Gustafson. The process the AHB team is developing, however, will produce infrastructure-compatible hydrocarbons with good yields while still reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent compared to gasoline, which is a big advancement.

It’s therefore clear that producing fuels from biomass like poplar trees leads to significant greenhouse gas emission reductions compared to petroleum-based fuel. The exact amount depends on many factors, such as the conversion process used and the choice of final products. The value of the research under way in the AHB project is that environmental benefits and impacts can be quantified before the factories are built and the feedstock plantations are established. Their research will also identify early on areas where environmental performance can be improved, enabling us to construct the most sustainable biofuels production enterprise possible.

Photo of poplar plantation © GreenWood Resources; photo of Budsberg © Renata Bura.

Grad Student Spotlight: Oliver Jan

In case you need further proof that not all “light bulb moments” happen in a lab or classroom, consider the story of Oliver Jan, a first-year doctoral student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) at the University of Washington.

He remembers one afternoon as a senior in high school when he was driving home from work. As Jan battled an overwhelming need to use the restroom, a different though not entirely unrelated thought elbowed its way into his frantic mind: Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could turn human waste into fuel and energy?

Oliver Jan

Since high school, Oliver Jan has studied various ways to convert waste products into useful, renewable energy sources.

As soon as he got home, Jan jumped online and typed in a few search terms around his idea. Words like “chemistry” and “chemical engineering” kept popping up, and he suddenly knew what he wanted to study at college. “I liked energy,” he says, “and this idea of converting waste into something more productive.”

Jan, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, went on to major in chemical engineering at UC Irvine—where a second moment of serendipity steered his studies.

At a chemical engineering conference in Minneapolis, Jan ended up meeting SEFS Professor Fernando Resende. They struck up a conversation at a reception, and Resende talked about his laboratory and explained some of his research with alternative fuels. Jan later followed up with Resende and ended up becoming one of his first graduate students at SEFS.

One year into his program, Jan’s doctoral research now focuses on thermochemically converting lignin, an organic waste product of the pulp and paper industry, into renewable liquid biofuels that can be used to power cars, airplanes and other forms of transportation.

“It’s not a groundbreaking idea, because a lot of people here are looking at this problem,” he says, but that doesn’t make the research any less urgent or important. Lignin is the glue that helps keep plants and trees limber and protects their structure, and it’s the second-most-abundant source of renewable carbon on the planet. Yet Jan says only 2 percent of 50 million tons of lignin is being used commercially. “There has to be a better way to implement lignin.”

He feels the same about research funding.

One of the biggest challenges facing young researchers, says Jan, is overcoming a huge activation barrier for funding. Depending on your field, you have only a handful of reliable grant sources, such as the U.S. Department of Energy or National Science Foundation, and the application process is hypercompetitive—especially for less-established scientists.

Not one to leave a surface unscratched, though, Jan started exploring different options to help finance and promote his doctoral research. He soon discovered Microryza, a “crowdfunding platform for science research grants” that two former UW researchers, Denny Luan and Cindy Wu, designed and founded in 2012 (the name comes from Mycorrhizae, fungi that live in the roots of plants).

Oliver Jan
Jan’s fundraising page on Microryza went live on July 1, 2014.

Like Jan, Luan and Wu were frustrated with the traditional research funding model, so they created a grassroots structure of individual public donations. Their site is similar to Kickstarter, except instead of seeking public funding for creative arts—music, design, films, games, technology—Microryza lets viewers browse a range of compelling research projects. Individuals then pool their money in support of a project, pledging various levels as “backers” until the funding goal is reached. These backers are only charged if the project reaches its donation target during a set timeframe. And unlike Kickstarter, the purpose of Microryza isn’t to invest in a tangible product or reward, says Jan. It’s to share in the scientific process and help fund research you believe is important to society.

Research categories on Microryza cover a broad range, from ecology and medicine to economics and engineering. A sampling of current projects on the site includes “How Does Mount Rainier Help Maintain Traditional Tribal Plant Harvesting?” and “Engineering E. Coli to Produce Hydrogen Gas Fuel.” Some have modest goals in the $1,500 to $3,500 range. Others are more ambitious, depending on the nature of the research.

What particularly caught Jan’s eye was how many professors and students were among the people seeking support for their research. And not just the numbers, but their success—even right here at UW.

Dan Jaffe, a professor of Chemistry and Atmospheric Sciences at UW, recently put up a proposal for consideration, “Do coal and diesel trains make for unhealthy air?” He set the target at $18,000. Within a week, he’d surpassed $20,000 in donations and launched the project with 113-percent support.

Jan then set to work on his own Microryza project, “Can we transform waste into clean biofuel?” He knows his target of $20,000 is aggressive, and he plans to spend the summer drumming up excitement and interest through friends and social networks. But he’s not pinning all of his hopes on this fundraising experiment, which he believes has an upside regardless of the outcome. “Even if I don’t get the funding,” he says, “it’s a great way to see how many people are interested in the biofuels work we’re doing here at the UW.”

As of July 1, 2013, his webpage on Microryza is now fully up and ready, so feel free to take a look and see if his research moves you. Who knows, you could be the one who fuels Jan’s next scientific discovery!

Photos © Oliver Jan.

SEFS Seminar Series: Week 6 Preview

Biofuels Slide

Lignocellulose, or dry plant matter, is the most abundantly available raw material for the production of biofuels. But how can we improve the production of fuels and chemicals from lignocellulosic biomass? And how do we deal with heterogeneous biomass?

Join Professor Renata Bura this Wednesday, February 13, as she tackles these questions in Week 6 of the SEFS Seminar Series!

The seminars, held in Anderson 223 on Wednesdays from 4 to 5 p.m., are open to all faculty, staff and students. Check out the rest of the seminar schedule for the Winter Quarter, and join us each week for a reception in the Forest Room from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Additional Background:
Professor Bura is part of the Biofuels and Bioproducts Laboratory (BBL), which includes Shannon Ewanick, Brian Marquardt, Rick Gustafson, Erik Budsberg and Jordan Crawford. Here’s what she says about the lab’s work and her seminar presentation:

Improvements in individual processes (pretreatment, saccharification and fermentation) have been ongoing, but few researchers have considered the effect that the incoming heterogeneous raw biomass can have on the process. Even within the same species, biomass is physically and chemically very heterogeneous due to the agronomy practices, water and nutrients management, weed control, harvest and storage, seasonal changes, and age. Rather than designing a biorefinery around an ideal source of a given feedstock, it is preferable to understand how we can process heterogeneous feedstock. How can we alter the heterogeneous biomass to provide the maximum yield of hydrolysable and fermentable sugars from whatever is available?

In this presentation we discuss how by preconditioning of biomass, online reaction control, techno-economic and life cycle analysis we can deal with heterogeneous biomass such as switchgrass, sugarcane bagasse and hybrid poplar. We will present that by improving the uniformity of heterogeneous biomass in terms of moisture content, we could improve sugar yields by 28 percent. Another means of dealing with heterogeneous biomass is to improve overall process control by increasing the level of data collection. We will show how Raman spectroscopy could provide early detection of feedstock heterogeneity, leading to increased real-time awareness. Finally, when processing heterogeneous biomass, overall results of the techno-economic analysis have to be incorporated into life cycle assessment work to estimate life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from mixed lignocellulosics.

Join us on tomorrow to learn more!

BBL Graphic © Renata Bura.